25M Slocum and Early

In another series of late-nite musings I’ve been trying to develop a scenario that places Slocum’s Sixth Union Corps at the center of the Day 1 action. It just didn’t seem to work! Harkening back to the 4Ts in Section 2, timing played a major role in this clash. Timing speaks against Slocum having a major impact.

25M Part 1: Slocum

This WHATIF would have played out this way. LTG Slocum was commanding the other Union Corps composed of just two divisions. He had been ordered to shadow MG Early’s march towards York. As such, he moved up the Baltimore Pike to Littlestown but no farther. There he was only slightly farther from Gettysburg than LTG Reynolds at Emmittsburg. Slocum seemed convinced that Meade was going to invoke the Pipe Creek Circular and he did not want to be too far afield of his assigned place on the right flank near Manchester.

So why would he have moved up to Gettysburg? To block Early’s return. But there is indeed another factor that comes into play. Slocum’s nickname was “Slo-to-come”. He was an extremely cautious commander. He weighed all the options before taking any action. In actuality, although he was among the closest units, he was the last to arrive at Gettysburg in the late afternoon of Day 2. It likely would have taken an order from GEN Meade to move him north. But let’s proceed as if that move was to be made.

The Sixth Corps would have marched up the BALTO Pike and into the city on the morning of 30 JUN. Timing: they would have arrived soon after BG Buford’s Cavalry. But would either have been aware of the other? Likely not. They were on opposite sides of the city and neither would have had any reason to advertise their presence. Slocum would have moved through the city and established a blocking position straddling the road to York. The first he would likely have been aware of any other troops in the area would have been the sound of cannons in the west on the morning of 1 JUL.

He’d have dispatched scouts and upon their report of a skirmish he’d have likely ridden to find Buford in the same way Reynolds did via the command flag flying at the Seminary. Even with only two divisions, the 6th Corps would have doubled the number of Union forces on the ground that morning. But here, too, timing plays a role. By the time he moved his 3400 men through the city – leaving behind one large brigade on York Road – he’d hardly have had time to deploy them before LTG Reynolds’ First Union Corps arrived from the south. It would have taken some quick thinking and action — again not Slocum’s strong suite – to see that the best use of his force was to the north of the city. Howard’s Eleventh Union Corps would not yet have been on the scene. [see Part 3 below concerning the hazards of trying to cross the city]

Even though he had yet to arrive (timing), MG Rodes was not far away. The Union line could have been in a much stronger position with 3400 men facing him at Oak Hill. Eleventh Corps would then have aligned to Slocum’s right, in a more compact line.

25M Part 2a: Early arrives

This then leads to the second question of this WHATIF. Why did Early alter his route of return? If he had simply reversed his march, he would have approached the center of the city. Instead he marched slightly north before turning west so that he came back from the NE along the Harrisburg Road rather than from the northeast [1]. This was more likely serendipity than a well-planned maneuver. Apparently, Early was headed north to join up with Ewell. He had reached as far as Heidlersburg when he received the orders to return to Gettysburg. In the actual Day 1, he was able to attack and rout the still arriving and not well established 11th Corps.

It becomes a much more complicated scenario to try to establish how that Day 1 afternoon battle might have evolved if Early had arrived at mid-town via the York Pike. He’d have found himself ‘behind enemy lines’. But he’d have had no real concept of the disposition of forces nor how that battle was progressing. He’d have been truly isolated and forced into action on his own. He should have had no problem sweeping away the small blocking force but then what? All he could call upon was the sounds of the battle to the west and north. No one knew he was there, so waiting for orders was seemingly out of the question. He had to continue to move, but to where? Had he gone north or west, he could have wreaked havoc in that he would have come out of the city in the rear of one of the Union lines. But at the same time, his position would have been unsupported unless and until he could get word to other ANV troops that he was there. He also needed to avoid friendly fire since he too would have been in front of the Rebel guns.

Early had no way of knowing it but he could have been the hero of Gettysburg had he maneuvered his division to the south. As he rounded the SE corner of the city, he’d likely have encountered Howard’s reserve division at work in the Cemetery. He would then face another momentous decision. Should he attack them or simply move up on to the unoccupied Culp’s Hill? The latter would have accomplished the “if practicable” order that Lee had yet to send!

[1] Early had enjoyed so much success at York that he decided to march north to better assist Ewell’s movements on Harrisburg. He had apparently gone as far as Hiedlersburg. It was there that he received the order to return to Gettysburg. He made the next left turn to the west at the Harrisburg Road. Little could he have known how well this placed him to launch a flank attack on the newly arriving 11th Corps.

25M Part 2b: Early reacts

Without truly knowing why he did so, MG Early directed his division south. Soon scouts reported sighting Union soldiers on the hills south of the city; in his route of march. Early arrived on the only high point to get a better assessment (Benner’s Knoll). From there he could clearly see activity in a cemetery just outside the city. Suddenly a contingent of Union Cavalry were coming in his direction. But they veered off to the south down the Baltimore Pike without blundering into his formation.

Immediately to his left was a heavily wooded hill, the highest in the area. He knew that he had to occupy that high point. He held BG Hays’ brigade at the vanguard near the SE corner of the town and lead the other three brigades looping farther to the SE then climbing the steep wooded slope.

Knowing that it would be difficult to drag artillery to the summit, he sent scouts to the south to see if there might be a less steep approach. After a struggle and with the help of his younger staff members, he reached the summit. Those scouts found him there with reports that the south approach (known as Lower Culp’s Hill) was indeed easier for the wheeled artillery. He sent his smallest brigade under BG Smith (aka Extra Billy) to secure that route. He cautioned the remainder of his men to stay back from the western summit to avoid detection.

He stood there marveling at the ground he now held. He was staring down in to the town cemetery were Union soldiers were laboring to build defenses. At the base of the hill was the macadamized Baltimore Pike. Farther to the west was another road (coming from Taneytown) and beyond that a long low hill running north and south (Cemetery Ridge). He was on beautiful ground, but how best to exploit it? He was still an island behind enemy lines and no one knew he was there!

He dispatched two sets of messengers, one south and one north. Their goal was to locate the Rebel lines, find a general officer and report his position requesting re-enforcements. The southern group found themselves halted by the line of stragglers, cavalry and supply wagons moving north along the Emmittsburg Road. They returned by nightfall unsuccessful in any effort to go west.

The northern riders had greater success. They skirted the Union right flank just north of the city and rode NE up the Harrisburg Road. All the while listening to the sounds of battle to the west. Turning west, they split up. One group was searching out MG Rodes while the other sought LTG Ewell. The Rodes riders got their first. After exchanging horses they set off on a looping ride west and south slipping behind the waning battle nearer the city. They found LTG AP Hill’s HQ and then moved on to report to GEN Lee.

After a quick verbal report and a crude diagram of Early’s position, Lee knew he had to act fast. It was mid-afternoon but nightfall was all too close. He ordered LTG Hill to deploy his reserve division under MG Anderson to march to Early’s support. They would generally follow the route taken by Longstreet on the actual Day 2, but it would take them a few hours to get anywhere near where Early was waiting. Lee still had no concept of the disposition of the Army of the Potomac and he hoped he wasn’t sending Anderson into the jaws of the lion, but he had to support Early.

While Early sweated out his position and tried to weigh his options, Anderson doggedly marched south along Seminary Ridge. When he reached the southern tip, he made short work of the sparse column of Union soldiers still using the Emmittsburg Road. He quickly crossed the open ground to the next rocky hill line (Little Round Top). From there, he had a bigger challenge. Units of the Second Union Corps were strung out moving north. He aligned a brigade along LRT and assembled some artillery on the low ground where two hill lines met (The Saddle). He positioned his smallest brigade (700 men) under COL Lang with orders to cross to the east while he interdicted the marching Union soldiers. The ambush went well and Lang was soon in the open ground, stopping briefly at the Spangler farm to regroup.

Hearing the sounds of cannons and muskets, Early knew it had to be his re-enforcements. To add to the confusion, he had his cannons brought forward and although they were at the limit of their range he had them target the Taneytown Road as well. With the rest he opened fire down into the cemetery.

Within minutes the Union troops in the cemetery were thrown into total confusion. How could there be a skirmish to their south? Then shells started exploding among them fired from the east! Generals Hancock, Sickles and Howard emerged from their Leister house HQ in search of an explanation of this incredible development. Relatively ineffective but still startling musket fire was coming from the hill to their left; the high ground of the area!

Lang arrived on Culp’s Hill with relatively few casualties and linked up with Early. He had with him a signals unit who relayed short phrases to Anderson via flags. “Blue coats isolated in cemetery”; “Attack from the south.” Leaving one brigade to continue to interdict the road, he launched his remaining three brigades along the long low ridge that led them directly there. Now that his position had been revealed, Early sent some men down the west-facing slope of Culp’s Hill to rain more effective musket fire into the cemetery. They spotted a cluster of many horses around a farm house just below them and added that to their target list. The assumption was (correctly guessed) that this must be the Union HQ. In attempting to flee, LTG Hancock was wounded in the leg. He was dragged into the nearby Ziegler’s Grove for the protection that those trees offered.  

Soon, however, Anderson’s superior numbers were mopping up the Union resistance in the cemetery. In addition to hundred of prisoners, he had dozens of cannons and three of the Union’s most senior commanders in his control.

Elsewhere on the Day 1 battlefield, things were going well for 1st and 11th Corps. They had successfully withstood the repeated assaults by Heth and Rodes. [Without the actual attack by Early, the Union line had held.] But as the sun settled behind South Mountain and dusk approached, the Union commanders began to implement the plan settled on by Buford and Reynolds earlier that morning: they began a withdrawal to the rally point at the cemetery. Little did they know what awaited them!

The rest of this scenario would play out much as described in parts of Section 28 below. I’ll not reprise that here. First and Eleventh Corps march into a wall on Rebel forces in and around the cemetery and are bottled up there until Hancock surrenders. The rest is Alternate History!

25M Part 3: EARLY’s alternatives

I felt almost compelled to play out the ALT Hx scenarios to see where Early’s other choices would have led. Sometimes I’m surprised as with the ‘march south’ scenario above. My personal guess is that the likelihood of his decision would have been 40% chance of going south; 30% north; 20% west and 10% do nothing = stay put.

The ‘turn north’ scenario was fairly easy. I could not see it playing out any differently than the actual Day 1, except that Early attacks the Union flank from a slightly different direction.

‘Go west’ was a bit more complicated. Looking at period maps of the city, it seemed clear that moving through the city on one main road was fairly easy. That is what the division would have done in going west to east as it passed through days earlier. Such a formation would not have worked if they wished to emerge on the west side of the city in anything like an attack formation. They would have had to cross by at least three routes = one for each brigade. But since the city grew haphazardly and was not laid out in anything resembling a grid pattern, it would have been more akin to negotiating a maze than simply crossing a city. In a short time it would have deteriorated into chaos as units found their way obstructed and had to reverse their march. Frustrated and confused units would have met at intersections and blocked each other’s path. Those few who emerged on the west edge of the city would have been scattered and unable to communicate or coordinate their efforts to attack the Union lines. Essentially nothing would have come from the effort and likely many of his men would have been taken as prisoners. In short, disaster. There is also the complication that over 20,000 Union troops would have been wandering through those same city lanes as they attempted to make their way south to the cemetery rally point.

Obviously, Early’s last alternative that afternoon would have been to do nothing. He had no concept of how the battle was progressing nor where he could contribute to the effort. He could simply have had his men stop and await orders from LTG Ewell. Such a decision would not have come without consequences. He’d possibly draw the wrath of his superiors. Charges of ‘cowardice’ would be bandied about. His reputation could be eternally blemished.

Of course, Early would not have been privy to any of the information that allows us to watch these scenarios develop as if we were watching a movie of the event. At least, that is how I envision these ALT Hx exercises. It still seems most likely that he would have turned south in an attempt to add a new ‘front’ to the battle that he could hear raging to the north and west. In doing so, he could have entered the history books as the man who won the Battle of Gettysburg!

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